In His most detailed prophecy of the end time, Jesus said, "When you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place…, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" (Matthew 24:15-16). What was He talking about?
He was referring to Daniel 11, which foretold what would occur in the powers that would vie for control of the Holy Land for centuries to come. For much of the prophecy these kingdoms were Syria to the north and Egypt to the south, both under Greek rulers following Alexander the Great. Eventually the prophecy describes one of these rulers from Syria, Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. He would "act deceitfully" by a false peace agreement with the Jews and later come "in rage against the holy covenant, and do damage" (Daniel 11:23-30).
The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, although not Scripture, provides us with history of the period. It describes how Antiochus set himself against the Jews, massacred many of them and plundered the temple at Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 1:20-33).
The temple defiled
Then came the worst. Daniel's prophecy warned of Antiochus: "And they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation" (Daniel 11:31).
The book of 1 Maccabees gives us details: "Antiochus now issued a decree that all nations in his empire should abandon their own customs and become one people. All the Gentiles and even many of the Israelites submitted to this decree. They adopted the official pagan religion, offered sacrifices to idols, and no longer observed the Sabbath.
"The king also sent messengers with a decree to Jerusalem and all the towns of Judea, ordering the people to follow customs that were foreign to the country. He ordered them not to offer burnt offerings, grain offerings, or wine offerings in the Temple, and commanded them to treat Sabbaths and festivals as ordinary work days.
"They were even ordered to defile the Temple and the holy things in it. They were commanded to build pagan altars, temples, and shrines, and to sacrifice pigs and other unclean animals there. They were forbidden to circumcise their sons and were required to make themselves…unclean in every way they could, so that they would forget the Law which the Lord had given through Moses and would disobey all its commands. The penalty for disobeying the king's decree was death" (1 Maccabees 1:41-50, Today's English Version).
Then it happened: "On the fifteenth day of the month Kislev in the year 145" (1 Maccabees 1:54, TEV), which corresponds to 168/167 B.C., "they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar" of the temple (verse 54, KJV). This appears to have been a pagan altar, probably with an image representing the Greek chief god Zeus, as 2 Maccabees 6:2 tells us that Antiochus defiled the Jewish temple "by dedicating it to the Olympian god Zeus" (TEV). After all, to the Greek mind the God of the Hebrews simply equated to the chief god in the Greeks' pantheon.
We are further told: "Pagan sacrifices were offered in front of houses and in the streets. Any books of the Law which were found were torn up and burned, and anyone who was caught with a copy of the sacred books or who obeyed the Law was put to death by order of the king…On the twenty-fifth of the month, these same evil people offered sacrifices on the pagan altar erected on top of the altar in the Temple" (1 Maccabees 1:55-59, TEV). Indeed, pigs, declared unclean in God's law (Deuteronomy 14:8), were offered over His own altar.
The account in 1 Maccabees 1:60 continues: "Mothers who had allowed their babies to be circumcised were put to death in accordance with the king's decree. Their babies were hung around their necks, and their families and those who had circumcised them were put to death" (TEV).
Yet, as horrible as this was, some still resisted. In fact, 1 Maccabees 1:62-63 reports: "But many in Israel stood firm…They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel" (New Revised Standard Version).
Yet many in the resistance lived. The account continues with the rise of the Hasmonean priestly family of Mattathias, including his son and successor Judas Maccabeus, who would not compromise with paganism. In the end, the efforts of these patriots and their followers were in large measure responsible for eventually pushing out the Syrians.
Later prophetic fulfillment
Now, with all of that as history, consider Christ's warning about the abomination of desolation. When He gave it, this part of Daniel's prophecy had been fulfilled almost 200 years earlier. So Daniel's prophecy, according to Jesus, must have a dual fulfillment.
Jesus revealed to us the time for this prophecy's ultimate fulfillment in Matthew 24:21 when He explained what would immediately follow it: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time."
This recalls another part of Daniel's prophecy, that in the end time "there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time" (Daniel 12:1). So this period of tribulation occurs at the end of this age, just before Christ's return.
Lessons from the first fulfillment
We can learn a great deal about this end-time prophecy from the original abomination of desolation Daniel foretold. Antiochus Epiphanes was a forerunner of the end-time king of the North, the world dictator the book of Revelation refers to as the "beast." No doubt this end-time ruler will employ the same deceitful and underhanded methods that marked the reign of Antiochus.
Furthermore, it appears from what we've seen and other scriptural indications that the end-time ruler will feign overtures of peace to the Jews of the modern nation of Israel.
What other parallels do we see? Part of the "abomination" of Antiochus involved the cessation of the daily temple sacrifices (Daniel 11:31). Yet Daniel's prophecy makes it clear that sacrifices will again be ended in conjunction with the abomination of desolation to come (Daniel 12:9-13). For this prophecy to be fulfilled, it appears that sacrifices will again be instituted and an altar rebuilt before the return of Jesus the Messiah.
In another parallel, Antiochus defiled the ancient holy temple when he erected an idol of the pagan god Zeus and sacrificed swine there. The end-time abomination may also involve an idolatrous image at a new temple. What we know for certain is that within the "temple of God" there will be an actual person who claims to be God in the flesh (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
Christ will destroy this religious figure at His second coming (verses 5-8), but not before many have been deceived with "power, signs, and lying wonders" (verses 9-12).
Also, just as the original abomination of desolation marked the beginning of a period of unparalleled horror and misery, so will the final one begin the time of the greatest horror ever, the coming Great Tribulation.
We can be thankful that God promises to send His Son back to earth to save mankind from self-annihilation in this coming horrible time of mass deceit and destruction. Indeed, as world events march ever closer to the fulfillment of these prophecies, let us draw closer to God in faith, trusting Him to see us through even the worst of times, knowing that we aren't left without foreknowledge to help us better understand end-time events.